PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – We almost forgot this is the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course.
With Jason Day looking unbeatable, racing to a record 15 under par midway through The Players Championship, building a record four-shot lead through two rounds, we lost track of who’s really in control here.
The Stadium Course reminded us Saturday that it has more unpredictable mood swings than a dissociative personality.
This place played like some entity determined to have its reckoning after yielding to so much low scoring.
With the course turning from benevolent to malevolent in the third round, Day didn’t look nearly so invincible, and yet he impressively fought his way into the clubhouse with his lead intact.
Still, Day isn’t holding a commanding four-shot lead anymore; he’s clinging to a four-shot lead. That’s how it feels with architect Pete Dye’s course snarling again, with the greens becoming such frightening adventures.
Nothing seems certain if reading 3-foot putts continue to look like linear calculus equations.
“A bit borderline in my opinion,” Day said, referring to the speeds. “A 10-foot putt felt like it was 60 feet away.”
With a 1-over-par 73, Day heads to Sunday at 14 under overall in his bid to win The Players wire to wire. The world No. 1 is seeking his third victory this year and his eighth over the last 15 months.
Hideki Matsuyama (67), Ken Duke (65) and Alex Cejka (72) are Day’s closest pursuers, sitting at 10 under overall.
“I want to win this tournament so badly,” Day said. “I really do, especially with how you can go down in history.”
Day has a plan to get there, and Tiger Woods is offering more encouragement. After Day opened with a record-tying 63, he got a text from Woods.
“Tiger said, 'Just stay in your world, it’s a marathon,’” Day said. “Today felt like two marathons.”
Day has closed the door on 54-hole leads the last four times he has held them, but that stat almost seems irrelevant. He has never led after 54 holes at the TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course, where these suddenly amped-up greens promise to test nerves in ways no venues other than Augusta National or Oakmont do.
“The greens are frightening,” said Matt Kuchar, who is eight shots back. “They are as scary as I’ve ever been on. When you address your ball, you feel like your putter is going to slide into the ball. There is zero friction.”
Strange things happen here.
Sometimes, it’s enchantment, magic you couldn’t see coming. It’s Rickie Fowler finishing birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie and then winning in a playoff last year. Or it’s Craig Perks chipping in for eagle at the 16th, making birdie at the 17th and chipping in for par at the 18th to hold off Tiger Woods in ’02.
And sometimes it is bewitchment. It’s Sergio Garcia hitting three balls in the water over the final two holes, losing to Tiger Woods with a quadruple bogey-bogey finish.
You never know what extremes this course is going to deliver on a Sunday.
Duke is hoping for the enchantment nobody saw coming. The 47-year-old is hoping to become the championship’s second oldest winner behind Fred Funk, who won at 48. Duke broke his wrist last September and has missed five of eight cuts this year. His 65 left him shaking his own head.
“It was really an unbelievable round,” Duke said.
Day practically had to wipe his eyes when he looked at Duke’s score on the leaderboard. Day thought it was better than the record 63 he posted Thursday.
“What course was Ken Duke playing?” Day said. “Can anyone tell me? That should be the course record. It was an absolute joke.”
Day made it look so easy, cruising around the Stadium Course without a bogey over the first two rounds, but nothing looked easy on these greens.
“Crazy,” Day said of the green speeds. “I could say something worse, but, no, everyone had to go through it.”
The scoring average Saturday was 75.59, almost five shots higher than the first round.
There were 76 players who made the cut and 60 of them made double bogeys or worse in the third round. There were 149 three-putts on Saturday. Day three-putted the third green for his first bogey of the week. He four-putted the sixth for a double bogey. He made another double bogey after skulling a bunker shot over the eighth green and made the turn in 39.
“It was just such a drastic change from Thursday to Friday to this afternoon,” Day said.
Day showed just how tough he’s becoming with the way he rebounded after that last double bogey. His lead shrunk to one shot there, but he played the final 10 holes in 3 under to build the lead back again.
Day delivered clutch plays when he needed them coming home. He buried a 6-foot putt for par to start the back nine. After pulling his tee shot in the woods at the 15th, then punching his escape attempt into some low lying branches, he saved par by chipping in from 50 feet. He buried a 10-foot putt for par at the 17th.
“All you could do was just try to survive,” Day said.